Watch local cooking challenge & learn to cook with native plants

Staghorn Sumac -Rhus Typhina from Ken Parker
Staghorn sumac or Rhus typhina. Photo courtesy Ken Parker

Sumac, a native plant, is pretty this time of year with its large red, cone-shaped flowers. You can see these small trees in parks or in the wild, and they make a great landscape plant.

But did you know sumac is edible?

There are quite a few native plants you might want to start growing for food– If you know how to cook with them.

In this article we’ll tell you about two events where you can get ideas on how to prepare native plants, plus we’ll introduce you to how to use sumac, wild bergamot, sassafras and black chokeberry in your meals.

Lockwood’s Fall Garden Fair: Presentation on how to cook with native plants

Ken Parker, CNLP, the region’s most knowledgeable native plants expert, will will share how to cook with many of our garden and landscape plants in a presentation on “Edible Plants—in Your Meadow, Woods or Landscape.” The presentation includes tasting, recipes and traditional Native American plant uses.

The presentation is part of Lockwood’s Fall Garden Fair and will take place at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8 at Lockwood’s Greenhouses, 4484 Clark Street, Hamburg.

This year the fair will be held for two days, Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 7 and 8. Hours will be 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. The event will include vendors and classes.

Admission to the event is free. Classes are $10 each, $25 for three classes or $40 for all six classes. You can register online or call Lockwood’s at 649-4684.

Lockwood’s has many native plants in stock, and fall is a good time for planting.

wild bergamot from Ken Parker
Wild bergamot or Monarda fistulosa. Photo courtesy Ken Parker.

Watch teams in an indigenous foods cooking challenge

Four teams of amateur chefs cooking on grills will compete in an indigenous food challenge to be held from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.  Sunday, Sept. 15  in the parking lot of the Saylor Building, 12861 Route 438, Irving. The challenge is part of a Fall Festival sponsored by the Seneca Nation of Indians from Friday to Sunday, Sept. 13 to 15 .

The food challenge is based loosely on the TV show Chopped, said Parker, project manager of Food is Our Medicine. Each team is given a mystery basket of three to five indigenous North American ingredients, such as bison, white corn, squash or beans, that they must use in their dish.

“The goal is to teach people to make healthy food choices,” Parker said.

Professional chefs will score the dishes based on their creativity, presentation, taste, healthiness and use of the basket items.

The challenge is run by the Food is Our Medicine project sponsored by the Seneca Diabetes Foundation with strong support from the Seneca Nation of Indians. The objective of Food is Our Medicine is to establish a Native American horticultural program that will promote, educate and encourage Native American community members to re-introduce traditional foods back to the family table.

The Seneca Nation’s Fall Festival also includes healthy-food vendors, featuring bison sliders and menu items that feature traditional white corn; the Seneca Nation Farmers Market; a 5K race, and blues by the Willie Haddath Band.

sassafras from Ken Parker
Sassasfras or Sassafras albidum. Photo courtesy Ken Parker.

Tips for using sumac, wild bergamot, sassafras and black chokeberries

The first thing you need to know about eating native plants is to never eat a wild plant or a plant from your garden if you’re not positive what it is, Parker said. Poison hemlock, as you can guess from the name, is toxic, but it looks a lot like wild carrot, an edible plant.

And don’t assume that if an animal is eating a plant that it’s safe for humans to eat, he added.

Also be sure you understand which parts of a plant are edible and what time of year you should harvest them.


Fragrant sumac or Rhus aromatica is indigenous to Western New York, Parker said. It’s good for an urban backyard because they spread, but be careful because they “sucker.” New plants grow from the roots of the plant, and you will have new plants popping up all over your yard.

While you have probably never used it, fragrant sumac is widely used in Mediterranean cooking. The dried, ground berries have a citrus-like flavor.

Staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina, is also edible and used in the same way.

Wild bergamot

Wild bergamot or Monarda fistulosa is a perennial that gets pretty purple flowers. It’s a member of the mint family, Parker said, and can be used in the spring to make tea.

In the summer, the leaves, stems and flowers can be used fresh or dried as an oregano substitute. Parker suggests trying it in a marinade for barbecues.

In the late summer and fall, the leaves and stems get more of a hot flavor– Use them for salsa or add them to canned tomatoes.


Sassafras or Sassafras albidum is a tree that can get up to 45 feet tall, Parker said. The leaves, which have a mild aromatic flavor, can be eaten raw or cooked.

The young sassafras leaves can be added to salads. Both old and young leaves can be used as a flavoring and as a thickening agent in soups.

The dried root bark can be boiled with sugar and water until it forms a thick paste, which is used as a condiment. The root and the berries can also be used as flavorings.

Black chokeberries from Ken Parker
Black chokeberry or Aronia melanocarpa. Photo courtesy Ken Parker

A tea, which is considered to be a tonic, can be made from the root bark. The tea can also be made by brewing the root in maple syrup, and this can be concentrated into a jelly. In the spring, tea can be made from the leaves and roots. Tea can also be made from the flowers.

Black chokeberry 

Black chokeberry or Aronia melanocarpa is a shrub that gets 5 feet tall. The berries are high in antioxidants, Parker said.

Chokeberries are dry and tart, not sweet. He suggests adding them to an apple cobbler. The fruit should be fully ripe before being eaten and is best after a frost or two.

The berries make a good jelly when sugar is added. They are rich in pectin, which helps jams thicken, and can be added to  fruits low in pectin when making jams.

Chokeberries can also be used for making pemmican, a concentrated mixture of fat and protein that is something like beef jerky.

Other edible native plants

Other native plants that are edible include:

Jerusalem artichoke or sunchoke, Helianthus tuberosus

Pawpaw, Asimina triloba

Redbud, Cercis canadensis

Wild crabapple, Malus coronaria

Kentucky coffee tree, Gymnocladus dioicus

Eastern bayberry, Myrica pensylvanica

Highbush cranberry, Viburnum trilobum

Sweetfern, Comptonia peregrina

New Jersey tea, Ceanothus americanus

Spicebush, Lindera benzoin

Wild plum, Prunus americanus & Prunus nigra

Virginia wild rose, Rosa virginiana

Soapweed, Yucca glauca

Serviceberry or Juneberry, Amelanchier canadensis

Wild grape, Vitis riparia

Wild elderberry, Sambucus canadensis

Wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens

Anise hyssop, Agastache foeniculum

Ohio spiderwort, Tradescantia ohiensis

Eastern prickly pear, Opuntia humifusa

Dense blazing star, Liatris spicata

Wild Ginger, Asarum canadense

Nodding wild onion, Allium cernuum

Fireweed, Epilobium angustifolium

4 Comments on “Watch local cooking challenge & learn to cook with native plants

  1. I went to Ken’s presentation at Lockwood’s last year and it was astounding, engaging and delicious. He will open your eyes to the abundance that Mother Nature provides and the power of growing those plants that belong in this region. I also have participated at the Seneca Nation Food Is Our Medicine project and “inspiring” is an understatement! The Elders are sharing their traditions with the youth and the community is coming together to reap their Native harvest and create a “Farmer’s Market. The Food Challenge will be fantastic. Do not miss the Seneca Nation’s Fall Festival. One last thing; if you want to volunteer or donate to this wonderful cause, come meet Ken and offer your support.

  2. A few corrections:

    Sassafras tree mature height is 30-45′ ft.

    The shrub Sumac or Rhus species is widespread and grows around the globe -therefore used in Mediterranean cooking. Fragrant Sumac is a North American species. However, I have used the dried berries for that style of recipes.

    Black Chokeberry shrubs matures to 4-5′ ft. A very good size shrub for smaller urban backyards. The cultivar ‘Viking” is noted for it’s higher yields of berries and “Iroquois Beauty” is a dwarf cultivar that stays under 4’ ft tall.

  3. Certainly interesting programs going on at Lockwoods. Also the Seneca Nation Festival looks to be fun and a good place to learn new things. I clicked both links, one for the classes and the one to the Seneca Nation.

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